The dream 2017 season for St. Olaf women’s soccer, one in which it advanced into postseason play for the first time since 2013, came to an abrupt and emotional end Tuesday afternoon as the Oles succumbed to sixth-seeded Gustavus 2-0 in the first round of the conference playoffs.
After a closely contested first half in which St. Olaf played a comfortable, effective game of ball control in order to generate scoring opportunities, it seemed like only a matter of time before the third-seeded Oles inevitably broke through the Gusties’ rigid defense. However, a sluggish start to the second half allowed Gustavus to blindside St. Olaf with two jarring scores. From that point, once the visiting team could focus every effort on stall tactics and defense, the Oles could no longer afford to rely on the methodical, deliberate play that brought them so much success during the regular season. Forced to play frantic catch-up, women’s soccer simply couldn’t produce enough explosive offense to keep its championship run alive.
“We were excited that we had a chance to redeem ourselves against Gustavus, who was one of the few teams that beat us in conference play during the regular season,” head coach Rachael Sushner said. “We had a great first half and continued our dominant possession style game and defended very well. But, the first few minutes of the second half we came out flat for some reason and Gustavus, an experienced playoff contender in the MIAC, capitalized on that by scoring two goals early in the half, which totally changed the momentum of the game for the remaining 30 minutes.”
It’s not that the Oles possessed a dearth of opportunities but rather the few early chances to score simply didn’t come to fruition. After being awarded a penalty kick in the first half to potentially take the lead and give St. Olaf invaluable momentum, Kaylyn Billmeyer ’19 couldn’t convert, allowing the 0-0 gridlock to persist. Emily Helle ’18 knocked on the door with a breakaway scoring chance soon afterward, but multiple Gustavus defenders deftly hounded her down and cleared the ball before the situation could escalate further. This was a common occurence throughout the contest, as any daylight the St. Olaf offense garnered was quickly snuffed out by the agile opposing defense. The Oles generated five corner kicks compared to Gustavus’ zero, but, despite hard fought battles in the trenches of the goal box, the Gusties managed to stabilize the situation before St. Olaf could properly capitalize. It’s not that the Oles’ gameplan was faulty – it’s that the execution simply wasn’t successful on this particular day.
Coming off a series of closely contested final regular season matches against some of the top threats in the MIAC, including playoff teams such as St. Thomas, St. Benedict and Augsburg, the Oles had all the confidence in the world heading into the first round, which tinged an already disappointing loss with an air of emotional frustration. However, for Sushner, this stretch of play is indicative of a strongly spirited team that, despite being a first-year playoff participant, could compete pound-for-pound against the conference’s veteran championship teams.
“We had come off multiple games against the best teams in the conference having played really well,” Sushner said. “It was nice to see how hard we competed in those games leading up to the playoffs and that we could be successful playing a great style of possession oriented but dangerous soccer. It felt like the pieces finally came together in the most important part of the season and I was very proud how well we played as a team and our focus in practice each day, even around midterms.”
While the end result leaves a bitter taste, it’s important to consider the greater context. For a young team ranked seventh in the MIAC preseason coaches’ poll, securing the third seed – and finishing one thrilling, airtight overtime loss from taking first in the conference – is, in itself, a massive success. Though saddened now, the experience these players gained on their biggest stage yet will inevitably be valuable when they take the field next fall, this time with an even more motivational chip on their shoulder. The fans chanting “Um Ya Ya” on the sidelines, despite the loss, can tell you this team was an absolute thrill to watch and has nothing to be ashamed of, possessing an optimistically bright future.
“I know that we improved out of sight as a team since preseason in August,” Sushner said. “The season was quite a roller coaster at times, but we learned valuable lessons in out of our conference games that allowed us to succeed once conference games hit. We never stopped improving this season as a team and that reflected in our style of play in later games against strong opponents. Knowing that we were playing for first place in the last game of the regular season is something to build off of for next year. The bar needs to be set higher now and things that were once just lofty goals now need to be expectations for the future. If we can start off the 2018 season with that mindset, then I’m confident we will be looking at a chance at competing in the NCAA Tournament next year.”
“Now, we will have to think about this game for a long time and will need to wait to redeem ourselves on September 26, 2018 in St. Peter. And that will be a good day.”